It's actually not often that things unfold exactly as analytics would expect them to, but here we are looking at the most statistically likely Eastern Conference Final matchup (despite a first round scare by the Toronto Maple Leafs).
In Hockey Prospectus 2012-13, we had the Penguins and Bruins one and two. When our nine analysts published their preseason predictions, six of us picked the Penguins to appear in the Stanley Cup Finals, and one of us picked the Bruins (the other two picked the Rangers). For what it's worth, all six picked the Penguins to win it all, too.
So here we are, with 2011's Stanley Cup champion against 2009's, and the fourth Eastern Conference Finals in the past six seasons that features at least one of these two teams. The question here is the same as it was on their last postseason encounter over twenty years ago: Can the Penguins be stopped?
Boston Bruins close-game Fenwick: 54.4% (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins close-game Fenwick: 51.9% (Rank: 11th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, 2.5%
The Boston Bruins are clearly the better possession team, but that being said, Crosby and Malkin don't need as many shots in order to do the same amount of damage.
How have the Penguins been so successful without the puck? Pittsburgh had a PDO of 1030 in the regular season, the third highest of any team over the past five seasons, behind only by this year's Maple Leafs and the infamous 2008-09 Boston Bruins team when everyone in the lineup enjoyed ridiculous career highs. And their postseason PDO so far? 1053.
Unfortunately, PDO, the simple addition of a team's shooting and save percentages, tends to eventually gravitate towards 1000. The only question is whether they can stay hot and enjoy the puck luck for just a few week longer.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Pittsburgh Penguins offense vs. Boston Bruins defense
Pittsburgh Penguins offense: 34.6 GVT (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Boston Bruins defense GVT: 7.0 (Rank: 8th in NHL)
Boston Bruins goaltending GVT: 14.8 (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Total: Pittsburgh Penguins, 12.8 GVT
Obviously, the big story here is Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are first and third in offensive GVT per game since the 2005 lockout, with only Alex Ovechkin in between and Steven Stamkos anywhere close by. You really can't say enough about Crosby, who is the game's greatest player overall, and certainly the game's best playmaker. Malkin is not far behind in either respect, receiving more Hart votes than any other player over the four previous seasons combined.
One of the keys to this series is the matchup between Crosby and Zdeno Chara. Boston's giant defenseman is probably the league's best overall defensemen ever since Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement. Chara is fourth in defensive GVT since 2008-09, behind only Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, and Rob Scuderi. Chara does all the heavy lifting in Boston, and based on zone starts and quality of competition, has had the second toughest assignment over the past five years (behind Nicklas Grossman). Chara has been assigned the highest quality of competition among his team's defensemen in each of the past five seasons, a feat matched only by Robyn Regehr. Despite all of this, Chara has somehow managed a simply dominant Relative Corsi (a plus/minus based on attempted shots per 60 minutes) of 9.4.
If anyone can contain Crosby, it's definitely Chara. Unfortunately, when the Red Wings successfully contained Crosby back in 2009, it opened the door for Malkin to rack up serious points, and the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, against their softer lines.
Even beyond Crosby and Malkin the Penguins have more weapons to deploy, like Jarome Iginla, who is 18th in offensive GVT over the past five seasons and right behind Malkin and Crosby with 12 points this postseason, and Kris Letang, who is 21st in offensive GVT among defensemen over the past five years, and has matched Malkin's 16 points this postseason. Pascal Dupuis, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, and Paul Martin have combined for another 38 points.
Unfortunately Chara, who has been playing over 29 minutes per game, six minutes more than anyone else on this team, doesn't have a lot of help on the blue line. Injuries to Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference, and Wade Redden have cost them 19 man-games on the blue line, which have been filled by the likes of Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski.
Up front, on the other hand, Boston is one of the league's best defensive teams. Patrice Bergeron is third in Selke votes in the preceding four seasons, and David Krejci is 17th. Among forwards, Bergeron is 18th in defensive GVT over the past five seasons, and Krejci is 46th. In that time, Bergeron has had the fifth-hardest assignment behind only Sami Pahlsson, Jordan Staal, Nate Thompson, and Dave Bolland, and yet has had a spectacular 11.0 Relative Corsi. Pavel Datsyuk is really the only comparable player in this respect. Bergeron is also tied with Ryan Callahan for tops in the league with an average 8.6 on the do-it-all index over the past five seasons.
Of course, the weight of stopping Pittsburgh's potent offense mostly rests on the shoulders of goaltender Tuukka Rask, and he is just the perfect man for the job. So far this postseason, Rask has .928 save percentage, and except for one goofy-looking highlight reel blooper, he has been rock solid. This shouldn't come as any surprise, as Rask is actually eighth in goaltending GVT over the past five years despite playing just 134 games (he is right between Craig Anderson, who played 240 games, and Jimmy Howard with 226). Rask has the single highest even strength save percentage over that period at .934, and is also incredibly consistent, ranking second in Quality Start percentage since we started recording it in the 2007-08 season, at 67.5%, behind just Cory Schneider.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Boston Bruins offense vs. Pittsburgh Penguins defense
Boston Bruins offense GVT: -0.4 GVT (Rank: 14th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins defense: 1.1 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins goaltending: 5.9 GVT (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -7.4 GVT
Pittsburgh's one potential weakness may have just been addressed with the promotion of Tomas Vokoun to the starting role. The 36-year-old has been much-maligned over the years, accused of being a career backup who can't play the big games, and he even actually had a former GM of a team with chronically horrible goaltending once publicly brag about how he once passed on a deal to acquire him, but he's definitely the man for the job.
So far this postseason, Vokoun's save percentage is .941 to Marc-Andre Fleury's .891, and he has won all but one of his seven starts. This is actually only Vokoun's third postseason as a starter, but in his first, with Nashville in 2003-04, he led the playoffs with a .939 save percentage. In the regular season, Vokoun is fourth among active players in games played, fifth in save percentage, and he has posted a higher save percentage than Fleury in all nine of Fleury's seasons.
As for Fleury, this is the fourth straight postseason where Fleury's save percentage has been below .900, and it was only .908 the year they won the Stanley Cup. Fleury may be 12th in goaltending GVT over the past five seasons, but Vokoun is fifth. In fact, over the past five years, Vokoun is third in even strength save percentage with .931 (behind just Rask and Thomas), and Fleury's not even in the top 30.
Should the Pens actually be silly enough to go back to Fleury, they should at least remember that among those with at least ten relief appearances over the past six seasons, no one has a higher save percentage than Vokoun's .952, not even the famous Josh Harding.
It is actually not that big a deal to use the bulk of the space to cover Pittsburgh's goaltending, because there is not a great deal to cover with regards to Boston's relatively average offense. This is especially true in light of the relative absence of playoff scoring from Bergeron, Jaromir Jagr, and Tyler Seguin, who have combined for just 15 points. In the regular season, both Bergeron and Seguin had 32 points, and Jagr had nine points in 11 games since being acquired from the Dallas Stars. Bergeron is actually 18th in passes per game (that result in shots) over the past six seasons, and Jagr is 15th in offensive GVT per game since the 2005 lockout, but most of their scoring in the first two rounds has instead come from Krejci (17), soon-to-be UFA Nathan Horton (12), Chara (11), Milan Lucic (10), and their regular season scoring leader Brad Marchand (9).
As for Pittsburgh's defense, Martin and Brooks Orpik are their best defensively. Orpik is 12th in defensive GVT over the past five seasons (despite the 14th toughest job), and Martin is 20th. Along with offensive catalyst Letang, they handle the bulk of the minutes on the blue line.
Up front, the Penguins have Pascal Dupuis, who is 11th among forwards in defensive GVT over the past five seasons. Tough guy Matt Cooke can actually play a great defensive game, handling the 12th toughest assignment among forwards over the past five seasons, finishing roughly third on the team every year in quality of competition and defensive zone starts, and yet is 29th in defensive GVT in the NHL over that span. Beyond Cooke, they have Brandon Sutter, who they acquired for arguably the league's best defensive forward Jordan Staal. Sutter ranks 23rd in defensive GVT, and averages around fourth among his team's forwards in quality of competition and defensive zone starts
but has been bombed with a -10.0 Relative Corsi over that span (Cooke is only -4.0). The recent acquisition of Brenden Morrow should help shore things up defensively.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins power play vs. Boston Bruins penalty kill
Pittsburgh Penguins power play: 11.3 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Boston Bruins penalty kill GVT: 10.5 (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Pittsburgh Penguins, 0.8 GVT
Sutter is the only player on either team to rank among the top 50 penalty drawers in the league (minus those taken), but yet the Penguins lead the postseason with 46 power play opportunities. They have converted an amazing 28.3% of the time, and boast 13 power play goals. Kunitz leads the way with three, Crosby, Letang, Iginla, and Neal all have a pair, and even Beau Bennett and Martin have one. Kunitz also led the way in the regular season, tying Neal with nine. Iginla had four power play goals in his 13 regular season games with the team, tying Malkin for third. Crosby may have tied Malkin with 14 power play assists in the regular season, but had only three power play goals, the same as Sutter.
If any team has the penalty killing experience to stand up to the mighty Penguins, it is the Bruins. Over the past five seasons, Chara has played 52.4% of all his team's penalty killing minutes, the 16th highest rate among the league's defensemen over that span; Seidenberg is not far behind at 46.2%. Up front, Chris Kelly is 18th among forwards at 42.6%, Gregory Campbell is 31st at 38.5%, and the incomparable Bergeron is 50th with 35.2%
Boston Bruins power play vs. Pittsburgh Penguins penalty kill
Boston Bruins power play GVT: -3.9 (Rank: 20th in NHL)
Pittsburgh Penguins penalty kill: -4.8 GVT (Rank: 25th in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, -0.9 GVT
The Bruins power play has seven goals this postseason, oddly led by Krug with three in five games. Horton (2), Krejci, and Bergeron have the others.
As for the Penguins, Dupuis has two shorthanders, the same as the entire team in the regular season (one from Dupuis, one from Craig Adams). Dupuis is 38th over the past five seasons by handling 37.5% of his team's penalty killing minutes, ahead of Cooke's 37.4% (40th), but behind Adams' 41.2% (22nd) and Sutter's 38.4% (32nd). On the blue line, Pittsburgh's underrated penalty kill is led by Orpik, who has played 49.2% of available penalty killing minutes over the past five seasons (32nd), and Martin, whose 47.9% is 38th.
Season series results
The last times these two teams met in the playoffs were the Conference Finals of 1990-91 and 1991-92, when Mario Lemieux and the Penguins blasted by the Bruins on their way to their first two Stanley Cups. The first year it went six games; the second season it was a sweep. Can they do it again? Ask Boston's Jaromir Jagr, because he was sitting beside Mario both times.
The teams met previously in back-to-back seasons in 1978-79 and 1979-80, when the Bruins swept the Pens in the quarterfinals, and then beat them three games to two in the preliminary round.
In the regular season, Boston leads Pittsburgh 100-59 in regulation time, with 21 ties, and Boston carrying a 5-3 edge in overtime and the shootout. The Bruins have outscored the Penguins 725-584 throughout history. This season, however, Pittsburgh won all three games in regulation time, 3-2 and 2-1, in two games five days apart this past March, and 3-2 in the final week. Interestingly, Malkin did not play in any of the games, and Crosby missed the third as well.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins faceoff percentage: 51.5% (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Boston Bruins faceoff percentage: 56.4% (Rank: 1st in NHL)
Total: Boston Bruins, 4.9%
Bergeron is the league's second best faceoff man behind Jonathan Toews, in terms of overall value. He has earned an estimated 7.4 goals over the past five seasons, according to the value placed on faceoffs by Michael Schuckers' 2012 study. Over that time span, Peverley's faceoff wins have earned an estimated 3.3 goals in value, ranking him 18th on the list. As for Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby is 13th on that list with 4.2 goals of value.
Advantage: Boston Bruins
Injuries and Intangibles
Pittsburgh is healthy, but Boston has had a few injuries on the blue line to Seidenberg (who is back), Ference (lower body), and Redden (undisclosed).
Behind the bench, Claude Julien is the 16th best coach of all time according to my recent study, and is currently the fifth best active coach. Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma is the ninth-best active coach, and actually ranks higher than Julien on a per-game basis. Bylsma won the Jack Adams in 2010-11 (the year the Bruins won the Cup), while Julien won the award in 2008-09 (the year the Penguins won the Cup).
Notably, the Penguins were 8-2 in one-goal games this regular season in regulation time, and 5-0 in overtime and the shootout.
Advantage: Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins: 46.0 GVT (Rank: 2nd in NHL)
Boston Bruins: 22.0 GVT (Rank: 4th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: Pittsburgh Penguins, 24.0 GVT
Boston has a clear advantage in possession, and they also have one of the league's best goalies in net in Rask. With players like Chara and Bergeron, they have the ability to shut down specific players or lines at any given time, even when killing penalties. But that is still not enough.
How are the Bruins going to score? Not a dominant team to begin with, even if their top scorers come back to life, Pittsburgh has corrected their one glaring weakness with the promotion of Vokoun to starting goalie.
Even if the Bruins somehow contain Crosby, what about Malkin? With players like Iginla, Neal, and Kunitz, the Bruins can't key in on everybody, and something is going to break through.
Pittsburgh's home ice advantage is going to be especially important, allowing players like Orpik, Martin, Dupuis, Cooke, and Sutter to shut down Boston while their own stars can avoid Chara, Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand, Kelly, and Gregory Campbell, and really take advantage of Boston's depleted blue line.
Those following me on Twitter have seen that I have been right on every series so far this postseason, which is very spooky. If Chicago comes back, preserving my fluky record, then I'm counting on Pittsburgh to keep me rolling into the Cup Finals. Unless Boston wins all of their home games and Rask steals one on the road, six of our nine analysts will have their preseason prediction proven right.
Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games
Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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